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ExxonMobil (XOM) will buy XTO Energy (XTO) for $31 billion in stock. (ExxonMobil will also assume $10 billion in XTO Energy debt.)

This acquisition is just the latest example of a shift among the international energy majors from exploration and development for oil in risky new geologies and tough climates to a concentration on predictable, low-production cost assets such as onshore U.S. reserves of natural gas locked up in shale formations such as the Barnett shale formation of Texas.

I flagged that trend for you in two posts earlier this month. You’ll find links to those columns later in this post.

XTO Energy is one of the largest producers of unconventional natural gas from the Barnett shale region. Through a series of recent acquisitions of its own (Headington Oil, Hunt Petroleum, and Linn Energy), XTO Energy has built positions in new unconventioanl natural gas and oil formations such as the Bakken shale of Montana and North Dakota, and the Marcellus shale that stretches through the Appalachians from New York to West Virginia.

The company has proved reserves of almost 13.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and another estimated 31 trillion cubic feet of unproved reserves. XTO produces about 5% of all U.S. natural gas.

ExxonMobil’s cost in the deal is roughly $13.42 per barrel of oil equivalent for the proved reserves and $5.47 a barrel of oil equivalent for total proved and unproved reserves.

That compares to a finding and development cost of $13.19 per barrel of oil equivalent for ExxonMobil at the end of 2008, according to calculations by Deutsche Bank.

That comparison–$13.19 per barrel in finding and development costs in 2008 versus a cost ranging from a low of $5.47 a barrel to a high of $13.42 a barrel to acquire XTO Energ–tells you why ExxonMobil is doing this deal even through natural gas prices are stuck in a slump of $4 to $5.50 per million BTUs. As I explained in my December 1 column investing in predictable reserves of unconventional natural gas, such as those in the Barnett shale formation, instead of exploring for oil in risky geologies and climates makes sense because the finding and development costs are so low.

Predictably ExxonMobil’s acquisition of XTO Energy has put boosters on the price of all the other U.S. unconventional natural gas plays such as Ultra Petroleum (UPL) up 4.9% today as of 1:30 ET, Denbury Resources (DNR) up 5.2%, and Chesapeake Energy (CHK) up 6.1%.

Even EOG (EOG), which I wrote about as a long-term bet on a shortage of oil five years or so down the road because of the shift of capital budgets from exploring for tough to find oil to buying and developing easily predicted unconventional natural gas reserves, is up 6.1% today. For more on that future oil shortage and two stocks that stand to profit from it read my post

Full disclosure: I own shares of Ultra Petroleum.